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Deserting The Site - Houston & Marfa

“In a landscape where nothing officially exists (otherwise it would not be ‘desert’), absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen”. Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta.

Deserting the Site is the first project of DUST (Desert Unit for Speculative Territories) a three-year series of transdisciplinary seminars, lectures, events and workshops co-organized by les Beaux-Arts de Nantes Metropole (France) and the School of Art at the University of Houston (TX) and conceived by Ida Soulard and Abinadi Meza in the wider context of Fieldwork: Marfa, with the support of the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Houston.

The desert appears as a space of possibility. It has been and still is a laboratory space for human and environmental experiments: from utopian projects to military test-sites, as an archetypal mythic and psycho-political space, as a zone of emergency and crisis, as border and buffer, and as a staging-ground for experimental or subcultural acts. The desert beyond its sole geographic position embodies a generic projection surface, a space for simulation, where new models are to be invented and new geometries and tools for orientation can be explored and engineered.

An investigation into ‘the logic of the desert’ as an abstracted landscape departs from one of the most defining features of artistic production of the 60s and 70s: the shift from the concept of ‘space’ to the notion of ‘site’ as well as the abandonment of the autonomy of the art object in favor or material and conceptual gestures. From the subversive experimentations of these beginnings to their widespread adoption and instrumentalization by institutions and markets in the 90s-00s, the notion of site progressively lost its power for critique and emancipation. A standard framework for artistic production now demands to act ‘locally’ and to operate within ‘specific’ situations while at the same time being more and more complicit with the generic dynamics that makes art an ideal laboratory for neoliberalism and hypercapital. This dynamic that saw the background of the work of art (context, site, environment) become a privileged artistic figure raises many epistemic problems and questions of representation. How do we encounter, perceive, or know a site? What does it mean to approach ‘the desert’ as a site? And in return, what does ‘the desert’ do to our conception of ‘site’?

The notion of ‘site’, to be able to regain a political and epistemic consequentiality, demands a strong reweaving between a concrete and an abstract site, and to explore this binding in all its dimensions. This symposium invites speakers from various fields (art, engineering, music, philosophy, art history, design, anthropology, critical studies, computer science and space architecture) and is dedicated to the exploration of this abstract and affected space, its spatial conditions and implications.

- In Houston, TX, a series of lectures and seminars will take place between May 17 and 19 laying the theoretical ground for artistic investigations by 12 graduate students in studio art from the two schools, concluding in an exhibition in Marfa and subsequent exhibitions in Nantes and Houston. All talks, seminars, and keynotes will be open to the public and free of charge. For more details, click here.

- Marfa Sounding, a series of site-specific performances, sound installations, and conversations exploring the intersection of music and the visual arts in the development of Minimalism will take place between May 24 and 29 in Marfa, TX. This series, with Alvin Lucier and Charles Curtis is curated by Jennifer Burris-Staton (a resident at Fieldwork: Marfa in 2015) and coproduced with Marfa Live Arts. For more details, click here.

The full program is available at www.desertunit.org.

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Abinadi Meza is a visual artist, filmmaker and sound artist. He holds degrees in art, architecture and critical theory, and was the founding faculty of the Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms (IPEF) MFA Program in the School of Art at the University of Houston. Meza has exhibited and performed in North America and Europe at venues including the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Sonorities Festival, Belfast; MAXXI, Rome; and the Lisbon Architecture Triennale. In 2014 he was awarded a Rome Prize by the American Academy in Rome.

Ida Soulard is a writer, independent curator and PhD candidate in art history at l’ENS-PSL research University (Paris) and is co-director of Fieldwork: Marfa, an international research and residency project run by les beaux-arts de Nantes and HEAD-Genève. She cofounded in 2011 a series of seminars and workshops entitled The Matter of Contradiction (2011-2013) and in 2012 cofounded Glass Bead, a research platform and online journal. She is currently professor at les beaux-arts de Nantes.


Les beaux-arts de Nantes Metropole’s mission is higher education and research in the field of visual arts and art education, with a national and international scope. Following considerable educational and technical changes carried out since the 1960s, the school (whose current status dates from 1904) is widely recognized nowadays for its dynamism and innovative spirit.   

The School of Art at the University of Houston

The University of Houston, founded in 1927, is the most ethnically diverse research university in the nation, and the leading urban teaching and research institution in Texas. The School of Art offers Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees in Painting, Photography/Digital Media, Sculpture and Graphic Design, and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms (IPEF), as well as BA degrees in Fine Art, and both BA and MA degrees in Art History. In addition to these programs the School of Art offers students interdisciplinary experiences through a cooperative faculty network so that students with an interest in sociology, anthropology, biology, computer sciences, or poetry (to name a few),  have access to some of the finest scholars and fully developed programs in those fields.

Fieldwork: Marfa

Fieldwork: Marfa is the joint project of two major European art schools, Beaux-arts°Nantes and HEAD-Geneve with a two-fold mission of research and pedagogy. Based on the idea of a research-in-practice, Fieldwork: Marfa is an international researcher-in-residence program dedicated to the practice of art in public space, critical approaches to landscape and artistic projects based on field investigation method. Residents are selected on the basis of the singularity of specific projects they present. This research-based program is bound to pedagogical projects and off-site workshops driven by the two art schools and various partners, among which is the partnership between les beaux-arts de Nantes Metrople and The University of Houston.